Jun 21 2013 11:00am

20 Essential Zombie Reads, Now with Superheroes!

20 essential zombie books to read

World War Z was fantastic, wasn't it? The book, we mean. It brought you deeply into a world of zombies, made you feel like you had lived through it all,  in a way that only the best books and films can.

World War Z isn't the only notable zombie book out there, though, as we pointed out a few months ago in this essential zombie reading list. The response to that list was lively, so with beach-reading season upon us, we’ve expanded our list to include 20 of our favorite flesh-eating tales.

Rather than focusing on the horror of a zombie outbreak itself, many of the books that readers suggested center around attempts to re-build civilization, the ways that humans cope with trauma and tragedy years after the fact, and the complicated question of what parts of humanity deserve to be salvaged in the face of disaster.


Zone One

Zone One—Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead usually writes books that fall firmly in the “literary fiction” aisle, but with Zone One he takes his beautiful way with prose and applies it to a post-post-zombocalypse story. It takes place several years after the actual plague, and most of the zombies have been cleared out by the Marines, which leaves people like our narrator Mark Spitz acting as ghoulish street sweepers—clearing the last of the zombies (and whatever bits of their victims are left) out of Manhattan, so the rich and powerful survivors can resume their normal lives of privilege. This future is barely removed from our present—corporations sponsor everything, bureaucracy actually causes more headaches than the undead, and everyone is realizing that not even the end of the world can shrink the gap between the rich and the poor. The novel delves deeply into the physical geography of New York City and the emotional geography of its people, and the ways past trauma can irrevocably reshape the present.


Raising Stony MayhallRaising Stony Mayhall—Daryl Gregory

Wanda Mayhall and her three young daughters find an undead infant shortly after a zombie outbreak in the late-1960s; they raise and care for the boy—the titular Stony—keeping him hidden from the authorities who wish to destroy all of zombie-kind. But in late “adolescence,” Stony is forced to flee his home and encounters the world outside for the first time. The story is both a parody of and an homage to the various tropes of the zombie genre, and focuses on the love between Stony and his adoptive family and the real challenges of being an undead boy.


Ex HeroesEx-Heroes—Peter Clines

It’s been a year since Los Angeles was struck with a zombie plague. Now only the undead can safely walk the streets at night, and a group of superheroes have to fight to protect the living—but they have their own scars to recover from. The survivors need a symbol of hope, but can these heroes provide one while also dealing with day-to-day survival? This genre mash-up features some great heroes and villains, and manages to explore zombie tropes with detailed realism.


The Reapers Are the Angels—Alden Bell

This YA book was the most mentioned in the comments, and with good reason! Temple has built a fairly stable life for herself in a lighthouse in post-zombie-outbreak Florida, but when her home is invaded by one of the infected she is forced to leave. She travels through the South, running across a brutal and rigidly moral man named Moses Todd, who becomes the closest thing to a father she has, and then begins working her way west. The book alternates between philosophical musings, Southern witticisms, and scenes of affecting action and gore.


The Rising—Brian Keene

The first in a series of zombie-themed horror novels, Rising won a Bram Stoker Award for best first novel in 2003. When a rift in dimensions allows demons to come into our world and possess the dead, a West Virginia construction worker named Jim Thurmond uses an old bomb shelter as a stronghold. Haunted by the death and reanimation of his second wife, he ekes out a bare survival until he learns that his son is still alive, and trapped in New Jersey. He leaves his bunker to attempt a rescue mission.

So that’s the new list—check out the original suggestions below, and keep your zombie reads coming, whether they’re shambling or horrifically fast.


Patient Zero—Jonathan Maberry

When you have to kill the same terrorist twice in one week, there’s either something wrong with your world or something wrong with your skills... and there’s nothing wrong with Joe Ledger’s skills. He’s a Baltimore detective that has just been secretly recruited by the government for a new taskforce created to deal with the problems that Homeland Security can’t handle...including a hideous new bioweapon capable of turning ordinary people into zombies.


My Life as a White Trash Zombie—Diana Rowland

Self-aware zombies are a great twist on the classic formula. It’s so hard to have a zombie as a protagonist, but Diana Rowland pulls it off excellently with her White Trash Zombie series. Will Angela Crawford be able to resist her newfound desire to eat brains? Will she find love? This urban fantasy adds southern charm and humor to an unorthodox zombie story.



Feed (Newsflesh Trilogy #1)—Mira Grant

What would a zombie invasion look like from the perspective of a blogger? Mira Grant’s Feed answers that question as well as mixing political intrigue into an already action-packed plot. The first books was once described by The A.V. Club as “The West Wing by way of George Romero.” If you want politics with your zombies, The Newsflesh Trilogy is for you.




Warm Bodies—Isaac Marion

Probably the most unique take on zombies on this list, this one is an honest-to-goodness sexy zombie romance. Don’t think zombies can be sexy or romantic? Well, check out the book that will defy all the preconceptions you might have about love and the undead!




The Living Deadedited by John Joseph Adams

From Stephen King to Poppy Z. Brite, Neil Gaiman, Laurell K. Hamilton and the great Harlan Ellison, this anthology has a talented range of awesome authors ready and willing to take on zombies, and take the genre to a whole new level. From editor John Joseph Adams, this may be the definitive zombie short story anthology.



The Brain Eater’s Bible—J.D. McGhoul with Pat Kilbane

If you wake up and find that you’ve turned into a zombie, this book will prove to be invaluable. Written as a kind of self-help book, the road to accepting yourself as a member of the reanimated dead can be tough, but The Brain Eater’s Bible has all the advice you’ll need to adjust. Don’t think of yourself as slow and stupid! You’re just a zombie. Learn to deal.


Portlandtown—Rob DeBorde

Are you ready for a rollicking supernatural western set in a zombie-infested Oregon? It’s the Wyldes versus the zombies with a little bit of magic thrown in there too. If the floods don’t get you, the shamblers will!




As the World Dies: A Zombie Trilogy—Rhiannon Frater

Here’s a series of books which helped proved that self-published authors can make it online and eventually have a major book deal on their hands. If you’re looking for some action-packed zombie-killing, look no further than Frater’s Jenni and Katie shooting up the undead, Texas-style!



The Forest of Hands and Teeth—Carrie Ryan

This YA title is set post-zombie apocalypse, as the cannibalistic undead try to attack a small band of survivors in a forest is protected by the Sisterhood of the Guardians (and a fence which traps the living as well as it keeps out the dead). Narrated by the teenaged survivor Mary, the book has a personal feel on par with The Hunger Games. Does the ocean still exist? Is Mary wrong to believe in it? Read this novel and the rest in the bestselling series to find out.


The Passage—Justin Cronin

Though heralded as book riding on the mainstream vampire craze, all sorts of mutants show up in Justin Cronin’s The Passage trilogy, including zombie-like creatures. After releasing this first book in a planned trilogy to widespread acclaim in 2011, Cronin then heated things up with the recent sequel, The Twelve. This is one great series to follow if you aren’t already on board!


The Zombie Combat Manual: A Guide to Fighting the Living Dead—Roger Ma

Roger Ma’s handy Zombie Combat Manual can turn anyone into a seasoned, zombie-slaying warrior. Let’s not just survive the zombie outbreak, let’s take the fight back to the brain-eaters! A great satire of a bygone era of combat/survival manuals.




Boneshaker—Cherie Priest

One of the leading authors in the steampunk genre, Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker is the first book in the Clockwork Century series, which will see its latest installment released next week with The Inexplicables! Not only do Priest’s novels feature anachronistic alternate history around every turn, but there are zombies lurking, too! Boneshaker was also recently optioned for a movie, so it’s time to get caught up on this truly awesome series.


World War Z—Max Brooks

Following his satirical Zombie Survival Guide, Max Brooks took a decidedly more serious approach with World War Z. Told from numerous perspectives from around the globe, this zombie apocalypse feels frighteningly real. Though the film adaptation has been bogged down in development problems (and you might be having mixed reactions to the aforementioned teaser trailer), the novel is worth anyone’s time—zombie fan, or no.


Dead of Night—Jonathan Maberry

A prison doctor injects a condemned serial killer with a formula designed to keep his consciousness awake while his body rots in the grave....but some drugs have unforeseen side effects. Before he can be buried, the killer wakes up. Hungry. Infected. Contagious. This is the way the world ends: not with a bang…but a bite.



The Walking DeadRobert Kirkman and Tony Moore

If you’re a fan of the runaway hit TV series of the same name, remember it all started here! Robert Kirkman’s dark tale about a zombie outbreak and its aftermath makes us not only fear the undead, but worry about how the survivors of this horrific future can possibly learn to trust each other in the face of so much carnage. Essential reading for any zombie fan.


So that’s our list, but of course there’s plenty more where that came from—let us know which of your favorite zombie books should be considered required reading!

Stubby the Rocket is the voice and mascot of Stubby always aims for the head. Stubby rarely misses.

Maureen O'Danu
1. Maureen O'Danu
I LOVED My Life as a White Trash Zombie. World War Z was also a huge favorite. The Living Dead anthology was very good, though I had to skip at least one story because it was just too much. I have The Forest of Hands and Teeth on my 'want to read' list.

Somehow, though, you forgot to mention The Zombies of Lake Woebegotten, a parody of Garrison Keillor's Lake Woebegone that is both scary and funny as well as utterly human. I reviewed it last year about this time. It was yummy.
Maureen O'Danu
2. Clamarnicale
I read World War Z just yesterday. Amazing book, probably my top zombie book of all time. It made the whole thing "real", so to speak.

Another interesting zombie book is definitely Handling the Undead by Swedish Johan Ajvide Lindqvist (the author of Let the Right One In/Let Me In, the book on which the films were based). A rather odd take on the whole thing, dealing more with society's problem of adapting to the fact that the dead are rising, as well as human grief, rather than "human vs. zombies" as a conflict.
Maureen O'Danu
3. Kevin B.
The Reapers are the Angels is one of my favorite books ever. It's really atmospheric and has a bleak sense of beauty to it. Both the main character and antagonist are fantastic and the ending haunted me for days. I also love how this "zombie book" isn't really about zombies at all. They're not the enemy, they're not the big bad the book story hinges one. They're not even really part of the plot. They're just a part of everyday life, a part of the backdrop against which the characters' stories unfold.

I dislike that it gets classified as YA though, because it's not. It isn't intended as YA by the author, and the only real YA "trope" is that the protagonist is a young woman in her mid teens. This doesn't automatically make it YA. It's as much YA as The Passage is.
Bruce Arthurs
4. bruce-arthurs
I'm afraid I'm getting to the point where I'm suffering from zombie overkill.

(rim shot)

Full disclosure: I have a zombie-apocalypse short story that's going the rounds of markets. Hopefully with enough of a twist and fresh perspective that it will find a home before editors get as tired of the zombie craze as I'm getting.

(I've seen a couple of market guidelines that are now specificially asking to NOT be sent zombie stories. I can understand why that might be. When I edited an anthology back in the early 90's, cannibal stories were the craze. I got more than fed up with cannibals.)

(another rim shot)
Cain Latrani
5. CainS.Latrani
I see that I'm once again left out of the essential zombie reading list.

That's okay, Tor. I understand. I'm not bitter about it. I'm not crying in a corner. At least, not right now. I'm typing right now.

Maybe next time around, we can spark a little zombie romance. Yeah. Next time around.

I'll be in my corner. Reading the books you like more than me.
Maureen O'Danu
6. Armand Rosamilia
Great list, although I have to add the Zombie Fallout series by Mark Tufo to the list, since he's quite a great author.

And who can not read and love the Dead World series by Joe McKinney?

Armand Rosamilia
Maureen O'Danu
7. Immo
Recomend Dead Mech of the Apex Trilogy by Jake Bible

Zombies and Mechs how awesome is that.
Tabitha Jensen
8. pabkins
So Lets see - I have read NINE of these on this list and I own SEVENTEEN out of the twenty on this list. I'll be sure to pick up the other 3 eventually. My husband keeps telling me I need to give up the zombie books because I have too many crazy nightmares because of them...and he's the one that gets all beaten up because of it. NEVER I say - I can't stop! I must learn how to survive!
Tabitha Jensen
9. pabkins
PS - Peter Clines rocked my face off with his - I got such a kick out of it!
Tabitha Jensen
10. pabkins
You know what might deserve an honorable mention - State of Decay (Revivors) by James Knapp!
Maureen O'Danu
11. Darket
All fantastic books! But a list called 'essential zombie reads' should really include Richard Matheson's 'I Am Legend', i know they're not technically zombies, but I bet that everyone of the above authors read it and was inspired by it! I also loooove the 'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies' books.. and Joe McKinney's Dead World series and the 'Day by Day Armageddon' books by J.L. Bourne... But you know everyone's got their favorites :-)
Maureen O'Danu
13. JennT
I can't recommend Warm Bodies enough. It really works as a send-up to teenage angst, a satire of Twilight, and an undead homage to Romeo and Juliet. Although the movie is different, Levine is an excellent director, and seriously cuts the fat, perfectly adapting it to the film medium. I encountered it when I was suffering from an overload of apolcalyptic YA fiction, so the satirical tone really really worked for me. I wouldn't be surprised if it became a new cult classic.
Maureen O'Danu
14. S Coney
I'd recommend Dead Petals: An Apocalypse by Eric Ortlund. It's a very different and creative zombie book. It raises the question, how does the "life" of a zombie differ from ours? In what way do their hungers differ from ours? Ortlund is influenced by Gene Wolfe and it shows - he certainly expects a lot of his readers. If you want a quick read, try something else. However, there's a lot of depth in the book and a careful read really pays off.
Maureen O'Danu
15. keylargolynn22
I also like the Austin spoofs: Dawn of the Dreadfuls and
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

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